30 May 2011 | lugonian
The Desert King
THE SHEIK (Paramount, 1921), directed by George Melford, taken from the source material of Edith Maude Hull's daring novel, stars silent screen legend Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926) in one of his most acclaimed performances. Following the great success of THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (Metro, 1921), it was his role of Ahmed Ben Hassan that elevated Valentino's status to popular leading man. Cast opposite Agnes Ayres, a name virtually forgotten among popular silent film stars, this is one for which she's best known solely due to the presence of Valentino, if not much else.
Starting off with a proverb (credited to Oliver Wendall Holmes), "Mohammed's land - where saint and sinner chant as one, their praise to Allah - bowing low beneath a desert sun" and subsequent inter-titles, "Allah is Allah - there is no God but Allah," before the story gets underway with the introduction of Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino) a rich tribal prince "whose shoulders has fallen the heritage of leadership," choosing a maiden at the marriage market. Choosing Zilah (Ruth Miller), he returns her to Yousef (Charles Wagener), a tribal chieftain who loves her. Also there is an observant tourist, Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), an "orphaned daughter of an English poet," whose free spirited ways has her both refusing a marriage proposal from a young man ("marriage is captivity" she says), and going against the wishes of her brother, Sir Aubrey (Frank R. Butler), in favor of traveling through the Sahara desert alone with camel riding Arabs headed by Mustapha Ali (Charles Brindley), a tour guide. In Biskra, "gateway to the desert, city of adventure" Diana is insulted when refused admittance into a casino ("The Monte Carlo of the Sahara") that is, under Ben Hassan's rule, reserved only for Arabs. In protest, Diana enters, disguised as one of the slave girls. With her revealed white hands giving her away, Hassan escorts the phony slave girl out. Learning about her travels through the desert the following morning, Hassan abducts Diana against her will, keeping her captive in his palace tent. Unable to break away through the violent sand storm, she does make her escape from his camp only to be rescued by Hassan in time from the abduction by Omair (Walter Long) and his bandits. Learning that Raoul DeSaint Hubert (Adolphe Menjou), a famous French novelist and close friend of Hassan, is coming for a visit, Diana, fearing the humiliation of meeting "a man from her own world" to see her as the sheik's prisoner, is forced to act proper during his stay. It is Hubert who insists on Diana's freedom and return to Biskra. As Hassan agrees on releasing her, he discovers Diana gone, abducted by the rival tribe.
At first glance, THE SHEIK gives the impression of being a throwback from the Theda Bara era from the 1910s, ranging from Agnes Ayres overactive emotions to Valentino's suggestive eye gestures. After repeated viewing, it becomes acceptable in that manner, especially how everything comes together through its primitive acting style. Not exactly "The Sheik of Araby," Valentino's Sheik is educated, having acquired lasting friendship between Gaston, his valet (Lucien Littlefield) and noted poet (Adolphe Menjou) during his stay in Paris. His Hassan sings the Stephen Foster song, "Beautiful Dreamer" whenever happy and is seen smoking cigarettes in the process. For his cultural background perspective, he usually gets what he wants, especially the woman of his choice. The big moment occurs when he abducts one outside his race, the liberated English Diana who addresses him as a "desert savage bandit." This scene alone is one of its true highlights, especially for 1921. For those familiar with Adolphe Menjou (1890-1963), and his countless roles during the sound era, it's interesting finding him in a silent movie so early in his career. Very thin with unmistakable mustache trademark, he's almost unrecognizable through his advanced aging process with slightly white hair and heavy makeup over his eyelids.
As popular as THE SHEIK was back in the day, there never was a remake, only a sequel titled THE SON OF THE SHEIK (United Artists, 1926) that not only marked the turning point in Valentino's career, in a dual role of both father and son, but his final screen performance as well, having died shortly after its theatrical premiere. Had THE SHEIK been put under consideration as a remake in the 1930s, no doubt that Ricardo Cortez, who bears a near striking resemblance to Valentino, might have inherited the role, with my take on Kay Francis playing Diana Mayo. As legend has it, there's only one sheik, and that's Valentino. Interestingly, while THE SON OF THE SHEIK did have more exposure than its predecessor, ranging from television broadcasts and home video, THE SHEIK finally turned up on cable television's American Movie Classics where it frequently aired from 1990 to 1999. Former AMC host once commented during its April 9, 1990 premiere presentation of THE SHEIK as being the station's first silent film broadcast.
With several video distributions of THE SHEIK, two 1999 releases are worth noting: one from Paramount home video with the orchestral and chanting score by Roger Bellon, and other from Gravevine Video with agreeable piano scoring. The Paramount edition with Bellon score is most commonly available, and one used for both AMC and Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: July 5, 2011) broadcasts. On a personal level, Grapevine's piano scoring is appropriate and much more agreeable. Although no piano score credit is given, it's quite reminiscent to William Perry's style from his Killiam Collection in public television's "The Silent Years" series of the 1970s.
As silent movies go, THE SHEIK is actually quite entertaining. In other words, "campy" with unintentional humor, and one not to be taken seriously. How the story and Valentino's performance appeals to contemporary audiences simply "rests with Allah." (***)